Tina Fey’s 30 Rock character, Liz Lemon, once sang about “night cheese” while wearing a Snuggie. So it’s a bit of a shift to see Fey as an adrenaline-seeking journalist who leaves an uninspiring reporting job in the U.S. and embeds herself in Afghanistan in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (out March 4). Playing Kim Baker in the film, which is based on Kim Barker’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle, Fey befriends a fellow correspondent (Margot Robbie) and falls in love with a war photographer (Martin Freeman).
Fey’s longtime writing partner, Robert Carlock, who’s worked with her on 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, penned the script and balanced the line between comedy and sometimes intense war-zone drama. Here, he talks about seeing Fey blasting an AK-47 and why the movie was almost titled Desert Princess.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve worked with Tina Fey for years, but this movie is probably the first time she’s had to be under intense gunfire and real, mortal danger. What was your sense of how she liked the action scenes?
ROBERT CARLOCK: I think she enjoyed the fact that there was a lot of variation to what was asked of her day to day. Some days were some big, heavy, emotional days, and it was nice to break that up with running around with blanks going off around her and getting to pretend to be that incredibly brave person who would actually do that.
There’s definitely comedy in the movie, but was there temptation to make it more absurd, like 30 Rock or Kimmy Schmidt?
I wrote some magic realism stuff and broader characters, but I knew as I was doing it that it wasn’t where the end product would live. It was definitely a line to walk, but I don’t think I ever felt like it should be Anchorman — or 30 Rock, for that matter — in Kabul.
There’s a running joke in the movie that there are so few women stationed in Kabul that they might be “4”s elsewhere but a “Kabul 10.” Is that a real sentiment over there?
There are about a dozen synonyms for “Kabul 10.” It’s a real bit of military jargon I came across. “Kabul Cute” is a real saying; “Mission Pretty”; “Desert Princess” is another one that a female helicopter pilot told me. For a minute, I was trying to get Tina to name the movie Desert Princess, but I think she rightly thought that that pointed us in the wrong direction. [Laughs] Tina Fey is not a “4,” and I think the saying is meant to be kind of derogatory and diminishing, but it is part of the craziness of that experience. Especially as a woman, there’s a lot to take in. Thanks to Tina, I’m allowed to put myself into that mindset and try to write it, but you can imagine how I think Tina plays this so well: “I think that’s disgusting and insulting and that’s making a woman a number… but I’m a 10?” But, there are two sides to it, and it speaks to the destructive seductiveness of that whole environment.
In the movie, Tina Fey’s character goes undercover in an improvised burka, does a ton of binge-drinking, and pees in the desert. Were there times when she read parts of the script and said, “You want me to do what?”
We have such a longstanding and such a completely honest, professional and personal relationship. When I’m asking her to make out with a guy — I think the sex scene with Martin [Freeman] is so funny — she gives me a bit of grief for it. But she never questions the necessity. She likes to give me a hard time if I seem to be getting some enjoyment from it. I don’t think she’d mind me saying this, but when she was doing certain emotional scenes on a day of shooting, I would not go to set, just so that she and the directors [Glenn Ficarra and John Requa] could do their thing. I think it would have been like having her little brother there.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is laugh-out-loud funny in a lot of places, but it also has a lot to say about gender, the media, and military conflict. How did you find the humor?
As I researched [Kim Barker’s memoir] and called real correspondents and Skyped with people who lived in Kabul, the reaction of so many people was, immediately, “Oh, yeah, I have so many funny stories,” a reaction that wasn’t always the case when I told people that I was working on an “Afghanistan comedy.” Not all of those stories were necessarily what you and I would call funny, but I understood that they were sometimes very darkly funny. Many of them — tonally or at least in passing — added a color or texture to the movie because there is so much depth in that world.